- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

On the 14th day of April in 1865, John Ford's Theatre was one of the most popular places in Washington. The events that night would make it an infamous marker in U.S. history.

As all American schoolchildren learn, Abraham

Lincoln, the 16th president, would spend his last night on earth at Ford's. Seated in a lavishly outfitted box with his wife, Mary, for an evening performance of "Our American Cousin," Mr. Lincoln was murdered in his seat shot at close range by the disillusioned actor John Wilkes Booth.

The National Park Service acquired the theater building in 1968 103 years after the assassination and set about crystallizing the events of that spring night. The agency oversaw a complete restoration, resurrecting the theater of 1865 as a working stage and creating the Lincoln Museum, an exquisite memorial to the president.

Located on a bustling downtown avenue six or so blocks from the White House, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site is a treasure that sees an average 5,500 visitors per day during high season. If you never have been there, perhaps you don't know what you're missing.

Make your first stop the basement, which holds the Lincoln Museum. The collection is housed in a modern rotunda, maybe 1,500 square feet, with exhibits encased in glass. It includes scores of photographs and drawings, portraits, busts, weapons, artifacts and lots of explanation.

Time stands still with an introductory display's inscription: "Many people loved Lincoln and supported his policies, but in a time of violence and hatred, Lincoln was also hated."

Of the assassination: "[John Wilkes] Booth was a handsome young actor famous for his athletic performances. He was also a Confederate spy. For months he had plotted to kidnap President Lincoln. As the Confederacy collapsed, Booth became desperate …"

Such details impressed Eric Lawrence, who was visiting Ford's Theatre from Cleveland with his wife and four children.

"There's lots more than we anticipated such as the museum," he said. "The way it's set up is very nice, and you can walk through and learn about his life as well as his death."

Mr. Lawrence's 15-year-old daughter, Tiffany, agreed.

"I love it I didn't expect all these artifacts to be here," she said.

Erin, 14, summed it up succinctly: "It is so neat to see where he was killed and everything."

She's right. If it's details of the murder you're seeking, you have come to the right place. At quarter past nearly every hour, visitors are invited to shuffle into the theater. There, seated in the audience, they can enjoy a 15- or 20-minute narrative by a docent about the events of the night of April 14, 1865.

Docent Sue Dickler said that every president since 1968 except Richard Nixon has attended a performance in the theater at least once a year, sitting front-row center. For security reasons, she said, the president and first lady always are seated last, and their plans are known to no one except those who should have the information.

One hundred and thirty-seven years ago, however, no such security measures were in place. On that April day, when Mr. Booth went to the theater to pick up his mail, he saw a great hustle and bustle about the place. When he inquired about the reason, he was told the Lincolns and Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant would be attending a performance that night.

Evil prevailed, and Mr. Booth passed from fame to infamy via the first assassination of a president.

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